A freestanding, 14-foot-tall, canary yellow wall greeted visitors to Matt Connors’s third solo show, “Machines,” at Canada. Past the expanse of yellow, you met an equally imposing blue wall standing sentinel to the gallery’s atriumlike inner room, which showcased paintings, a work on paper and one mixed-medium wall piece (all 2014). The double wall installation, titled Wedge, acted as gentle schooling on how to approach Connors’s art, suggesting that equal concentration be given to color, space and form. Connors has what could be termed an “extended” painting practice, comprising large and small canvases, drawings, artist books and painted wood objects displayed either as sculpture or on the wall. The paintings are often contained in brightly colored, well-crafted wood frames, which are at once decorative and integral to the picture plane.
The show’s nine acrylic-on-canvas paintings range in scale from the intimate (14½ by 12 inches) to the expansivez-a luminous diptych that measures 81 by 133 inches. In contrast to past exhibitions, the works on view seemed to be in frequent dialogue with the history of abstract painting, alluding to Matisse’s paper cutouts, Frankenthaler’s stained canvases and Brice Marden’s oil-and-wax surfaces, as well as to the ideal forms of Ellsworth Kelly and Ron Gorchov. Flashe acrylic paint (Connors’s preferred medium) is thin and absorbent, and soaks into the raw canvas like watercolor on paper, lending these paintings a silky affect.
The mustard yellow ground of Gatefold Maquette holds seven squares, each a different hue and outlined in colored pencil. The painting retains the push-pull quality of a Hans Hofmann despite its sketchy flatness, which remarkably does not diminish its emotive stature. The apparent casualness and roughness of paintings like Reverse Commute and Self Translating are balanced by the tender, classical precision of the indigo blue shapes of Second Witch’s Hat and the yellow and red notelike strokes of Direct Address. The openness of the canvases was contrasted sharply by Reverse Telescope, a dark blue rectangle matted in black, covered with plexiglass and contained in a salmon-colored, painted wood frame. The work functions like a comma in a sentence, providing a moment of dark pause with which to better take in the Starburst-candy colors around it.
It’s a temptation to analyze how the paintings “work,” and to figure out what, if anything, was machinelike about them. What was readily apparent was a restrained theatricality that came forward when similar works with slight differences were installed next to one another. Have You and Are You both consist of three rectangles side by side in green, pink and orange. The clean precision of Have You was emphasized by a rogue stripe of dark blue and a stain of green in Are You. The dialectic between exquisite containment and the elegant accident was a quiet joy to notice.
The factual sensuality of colors touching was best conveyed in two works that aren’t quite paintings: Machine (red/yellow) and Machine (black/white), polished and painted rectangular wood blocks, smaller in scale than the canvases and discretely objectlike. Connors’s work reminds us that time in the studio can consist of watching and waiting to make a move and that painting can be a passion of the mind as well as of the body and the emotions. This faith in the medium’s natural fluidity and a personal knowledge of the history of abstraction are what set Connors apart from many young painters who seem preoccupied with the image of abstraction at the expense of a nuanced approach to creation.